Demagogue: a political leader who seeks support by appealing to the desires and prejudices of ordinary people rather than by using rational argument.
In their 2018 book, How Democracies Die, Harvard political science professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (L&Z) describe the various ways in which democracies die. For the last 15 years, L&Z have studied democracy deaths as the main focus of their research. What they find is that these days, democracies often do not die after a military coup. Instead, many modern authoritarians or populist demagogues gain power by striking deals with existing political parties who are often under stress and losing influence. Hitler and Mussolini took that route. In both cases, the existing order was confident that they could control the demagogues they helped to legitimize.
In this regard, L&Z see political parties and especially their leaders and insiders as gatekeepers who are in a position to prevent legitimizing and/or the rise to power of demagogues. L&Z comment on this legal route to power: “The tragic paradox of the electoral route to authoritarianism is that democracy’s assassins use the very institutions of democracy—gradually, subtly, and even legally—to kill it. . . . . One of the great ironies of how democracies die is that the very defense of democracy is often used as a pretext for its subversion”
American democracy vs. Trump: L&Z write to express their deep concern that President Trump, a demagogue in their view, could rise to become a full-blown authoritarian. They find that two critical norms that have kept American demagogues in the past from gaining power have largely collapsed. One weakened norm is “mutual toleration” which exists when political parties accept each other as legitimate political opposition. The other norm is “forbearance” wherein politicians exercise restraint in using power and institutional prerogatives. L&Z calls these norms the “soft guardrails of American democracy.”
L&Z argue the erosion of these norms began in the 1980s and by the time Obama was elected in 2008, “many Republicans, in particular, questioned the legitimacy of their Democratic rivals and had abandoned the forbearance strategy for a strategy of winning by any means necessary.” They point out that Trump accelerated the trend, but didn't initially cause it. L&Z see extreme polarization as a root cause of the weakening of the norms that helped defend democracy from demagogues: “And if one thing is clear from studying breakdowns throughout history, it’s that extreme polarization can kill democracies.”
Some may recall that the 2018 presidential greatness survey by experts ranked Trump as the most polarizing president in US history. [idw.community] 2018 was the first year that the question had been asked. It was asked in view of the obvious polarizing effect that Trump had on American politics and society.
The tyrant test: L&Z find that authoritarians tend to use the same rhetoric and tactics in making their run for power. Keying off of earlier research of democratic breakdowns by political scientist Juan Linz, L&Z articulate four behavioral warning signs that help identify an authoritarian. Evidence of any one of the four behaviors in words or actions point to an authoritarian politician.
The four signs are evident “when a politician (1) rejects the democratic rules of the game, (2) denies the legitimacy of opponents, (3) tolerates or encourages violence, or (4) indicates a willingness to curtail the civil liberties of opponents, including the media.” Trump has shown behaviors that fit all four of the warning signs. For example, he rejected the democratic rules of the game by claiming he would not accept election results if he lost the 2016 election and falsely claimed there was massive voter fraud. Similarly, he denied the legitimacy of Hillary Clinton by calling her a criminal and calling for her to be imprisoned. He also publicly tolerated and encouraged violence by his supporters, e.g., “If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them, would 'ya? Seriously. Just knock the hell out of them. I promise you, I will pay the legal fees. I promise you.”
L&Z argue that the republican party has abdicated essentially all responsibility to try to keep the authoritarian demagogue Trump from gaining power or undermining democracy. We are undergoing the kind of stealth attack on democracy that people have a hard time seeing. L&Z point out that there have always been about 30-40% of Americans who were ready to support a populist demagogue. Trump’s populist demagogic rhetoric and behavior, coupled with the the republican party’s abdication of responsibility to defend democracy, make America’s current political situation look truly frightening.
Warning: L&Z point out that opposition to demagogues must be legal. The demagogue can use anything illegal by the opposition as an excuse to further undermine democratic freedoms and the rule of law. In other words, Antifa and any other pro-violence groups that want to help defend democracy need to cool their jets and get their act together. Stupidity such as violence plays into the tyrant’s hands.